In April, as the crisis in Syria was kicking off but international attention was focused on the carnage in Libya, Fashion Magazine Vogue ran a profile of Syrian first lady Asma Al-Assad. The profile prominently featured a family photo of her and her two children, as her husband—President Bashar Al-Assad—knelt to pick up a mechanical toy for his son.
It is a bucolic image, but the portrait of the Syrian strongman—daily accused of the brutal torture and death of thousands in Syria, some as young as his son in the photo—is alarming, given how natural Assad seems as an average family man.
The feature made headlines when it was published, some accusing Vogue of disregarding the context of the story unfolding in Syria. It was an incomplete story—as the tale of the Assad family frequently is. How has Bashar Al-Assad, managed to keep an arms length to the crisis in his country, the blood off his hands so to speak, in a way that allows him to still be viewed as that father figure in the photo? It is a question that might best be answered by the family members absent from the family album.
[inset_left]Maher represents aspects of a Syria that might have been, had Basil come to power[/inset_left]
One month later, another image emerged, another glimpse into the Assad dynasty. In amateur video footage a man resembling Maher Al-Assad, the brother of Bashar, is standing in front of a group of un-armed protestors in Damascus. News services attempting to verify the identity of Maher highlighted the manner in which police behaved around the figure, protecting him with their shields, following his steps. Officers were positioned around the man as if both to protect him and defer to him, apparently indicating that the man was someone of significance in Damascus. He loaded what appeared to be a shotgun and fired either live ammunition or tear gas canisters directly into the crowd who were chanting for the end of the Assad regime. It was not the first time such an image had surfaced, a man of influence in Syria with a direct hand in a scene of intense of violence.
Maher Assad, at only 43 years old, is the youngest brother of the President. Like Bashar he grew up away from the spotlight of his father Hafez’s presidency, while their brother Basil was groomed to assume their father’s mantle. Maher initially studied Business in Damascus and then, like his father, he followed a military career.
In the early hours of 6 January, 1994, Basil was driving through dense fog headed to Damascus airport. He was late for a flight and was traveling at high speed when he slammed into the partition of the motorway. He died en route to the hospital, changing the course of Syria’s history with his death.
President Hafez looked at his two sons Bashar and Maher and leaned towards the mild mannered young ophthalmologist in London as his successor. Bashar was even-tempered while Maher was seen as quick to lose his cool. In October 1999, a few months before his father died, it was reported that Maher shot his brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, in the stomach during an argument. While the incident was not fatal, Maher’s dangerous reputation was sealed and with it his unsuitability for the presidency. Bashar inherited the Presidency one year later.
Maher represents aspects of a Syria that might have been, had Basil come to power—specifically his military background sets him apart from the meeker Bashar. In lieu of the presidency, Maher took command of the elite Fourth Division and Republican Guard brigade where he quickly established a reputation of strong and ruthless leadership—quite at odds with the doctoral demeanor of his elder brother.
Since then he has established a strong track record of dealing with dissent by force. What is more, he was heavily implicated by the 2005 Mehlis report in the planned assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. His business acumen extends to having a hand in the family cartel of his cousin Rami Makhlouf—a network of investments that make up as much as 60 percent of Syria’s economy. This integration into the economy and the state made Maher one of the first targets for strategic economic sanctions on Syria by the US and the EU.
In 2008, reports began to trickle out of Sednaya, a town 25 km north of Damascus, that political prisoners were being killed in the town’s prison. Subsequently a minor uprising was getting out of hand and turning bloody. The army was dispatched to regain control of the situation. Approximately three days after the first reports emerged of the crisis in Sednaya, video emerged of a man holding a small object in his hand over a pile of disfigured, mangled and dismembered bodies outside the prison. He was holding a mobile phone to capture images of the gruesome scene. Those around positioned themselves to protect him and to follow his steps. The grim photographer in the video has since by identified as Maher by his sister in law. He had been the man dispatched by Damascus to end the crisis swiftly.
Carnage such as perpetrated by the Assad leadership in Sednaya is now fuelling the current uprising against the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad. While Maher’s forces have been brutal in putting down the uprising with a heavy hand, his operations in Deraa—south of Damascus—have killed hundreds of people including dozens of children, still he has not been able to end the months of violence. The pressure from the security apparatus has only seemed to fan the flames of discontent.
Some believe that it is the egotistical mindset of Maher that keeps Bashar from choosing options being offered by the Arab League to stem the uprising and end the months of violence. Others argue that the image of a bloodthirsty and crazed younger brother is a ruse to protect the president's image, replicating a model that was first used by Hafez and his brother Rifaat. The 1982 Hama massacre, a swift and brutal operation that destroyed three quarters of the city and killed an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people, is widely attributed to Rifaat . Like Hafez and Rifaat in the past, Maher gets the blood on his hands while Bashar keeps a respectable distance.
It is unclear how much of the massacre in Hama was directly orchestrated by Hafez, Rifaat reveled in his handiwork—like Maher—bragging that the death toll in Hama was closer to 40,000. Despite his contributions to his brother’s continued leadership he and Rifaat fell out in 1984 over Hafez’s fitness to lead as his health suffered. Rifaat was exiled abroad and his insubordination was so unacceptable that Hafez ordered images that included Rifaat modified to remove him from the frame.
Today, current president Bashar Al-Assad faces an earthquake in his leadership and the contributions of his brother are both enforcing his rule and undermining it. Like the current Assad generation, the first generation of Assad leaders are a picture defined significantly by those not in it.